Boundaries – Physical, Part 2: Mind-Body Connection, Re-Imagining the Interpersonal, and “Interacting, Fast and Slow” – A riff on the work and words of Daniel Kahneman

Spiral dynamics – Ken Wilber

Greetings to you. How are you? I am well, and I very much hope you are also. Is this a good time to connect? Great, let’s get started then.

These social niceties probably seem more than a little out of place in a blog entry. Well, they are! At least, they were according to the schema I (we) previously held about how blog entries are “supposed” to work. Can we agree that things are different now? For me, they certainly have changed, even since my last post (Physical Boundaries: Part 1, in case you missed it) from nearly four weeks ago. Four weeks. My last post looks juvenile and naive to my eyes, in the light of these intervening days and weeks. But that is the way of these things. If the past month has taught us anything, it’s that exponential growth/change (scroll down to the section on it in Mat’s most recent post, if you’re in a rush) is damn near impossible to account for, in advance or otherwise.

And yet, the curve does seem to be flattening, at least in a number of places. How? Simply put, boundaries. And accountability. As well as some support… and, why not? Expectations. BASE. When things work, regardless of whether or not they work optimally, there is almost always a good measure of all four of those things at play.

So, without more preamble, let’s dive in to the exploration of Cognitive and Interpersonal Physical Boundaries.

Cognitive Physical Boundaries can sound like a self-contradictory turn of phrase, especially for those of us educated in a Western thought paradigm. “How can I have mental boundaries that are also physical?” you may ask. My response, if I were feeling a bit cheeky, would be along the lines of “how can you not?” Unless you are making a deliberate, sustained effort to separate your cognitive and corporeal awarenesses, the strongest likelihood is that a large part of your lived experience is found in the interplay between the two. 

To be clear, your brain and the thinking in which we engage it are not synonymous with the “mind.” A little word work can help us clarify the distinction: 

Cognitive -> Cognition -> Thought (intellect)

Mental -> Mindfulness -> Mentality (mindset)

To me it is very interesting how we can begin with two practically synonymous words —cognitive and mental— and end up with two words —intellect and mindset— that are at best parallel partners. Although serious study of the mind-body connection has not been prevalent in the West for much of the past few hundred years, more recently it has gotten more and more traction. From the likes of Deepak Chopra, to the rise in meditation and mindfulness apps, clinics, podcasts, and so on, collective humanity is almost crying out for a counterpoint to the overly essentialized, long-held view of the body as a mere implement for the mind; a fleshy automaton meant to enact the whims of one’s will, or to be the gateway for the spirit’s eventual decline and demise.

Want an example? My recent lived experience sheltering in place here in Southern California has taught me a lot about mind-body connection and a lack of healthy Cognitive Physical Boundary guarding. Maybe you’ve gone through something similar recently:

My sinuses were irritated. I noticed it, at first a little, and then more and more. I thought “it’s just allergies.” Then I thought, “Isn’t it?” Then I felt irritation and even mild discomfort settle in my pharynx (the part of your sinuses that sits above the palate, almost directly behind your nose). Then I looked up what that part of the sinuses is called, and I read some articles about how the pharynx is where respiratory infection and sickness often begin. Then I noticed that my pharynx was even more inflamed and irritated. Then I became something very close to obsessed with clearing it out. Saline, saline, and more saline. It did not clear out. I climbed into bed about eight hours later in a ragged state. It must have been an hour before sleep finally took.

And don’t even get me started on the evening where I felt warm and took my temperature, only to discover that it was between 99 and 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. I took it about 8 more times over the next two to three hours… it came down within 45 minutes and stayed that way. But it took my mind, and my body, about 12 hours to accept that this was not the beginning of a downward spiral. The next day, when I woke up feeling about as fine as I ever do, I decided to be MUCH more purposeful about monitoring my mind-body connection.

Contact with too much news, at too many intervals, focused too much on the myriad, mysterious symptoms and transmission modalities had built a narrative of inevitable infection inside my mind and spirit. My body reacted in kind. Sensations turned into symptoms. Symptoms turned into self-diagnosis, despite a much more robust set of signals that I was doing just fine physically. Sound familiar?

I needed to really channel some effort and energy into being aware of my body and the influence my thoughts and feelings have on it. In order to establish that connection in a more positive light, I went back to a technique that a former aikido sensei showed me. I lie down on my bed, and I proceeded to breathe in and out five to ten times, first through my nose and mouth, and then (and here’s the important part), through each of my main body parts: neck and shoulders: in, then out; arms and hands, in, then out; hips and lower back, in, then out; and so on.

Even if the worst thing you’re dealing with is some tension or soreness, this is an amazingly effective way to connect mentally with a physical sensation in a way that also gives you some agency. Because, isn’t that the challenge we most often face? Our body hurts -> us, and our minds/thoughts absorb and create a story from that physical hurt? Using the technique I have just described, you can begin to shift the source and flow of that story. Instead of beginning with physical sensation and ending in a cognitively produced narrative, turn the whole thing on its head (so to speak). Start with a story of general wellness and genuinely curious exploration, and then send that out through the physical sensory receptors of your body through the elemental power of purposeful breath. It takes some practice and dedication, but it also offers the powerful reward of a cognitive physical boundary system that is more reflective of the actual relationship between our bodies and minds.

Interpersonal Physical Boundaries can be understood, on one level at least, to overlap with Kinetic Physical Boundaries. As I outlined in my previous post, most of us have an ingrained preference when it comes to the amount of physical contact we wish to make with others in different kinds of routine social encounters. But what about our the way our physicality reflects our psychosocial state? Put a simpler way, what about our “energy” or “aura” in interpersonal dynamics? I’ll start from the outside in. 

Have you ever been around someone whose mood or state of mind was almost physically perceptible to you? Whether it is joy, bitterness, anxiety, desire, rage, or indifference —to pick just a few possibilities— I cannot help but imagine that you have been able to sense what another person is feeling just by being in their physical, visual, or auditory proximity. But, how often have you wondered how this can be? Does the invocation of terms like “energy” put you off? I suppose I can understand if it does, since it opens more doors to ambiguity than it closes, but I also wonder if that isn’t just the nature of interpersonal dynamics. They’re just a complicated mixture of visible and invisible dynamics, right? 

But let’s put that aside for a moment. Let’s agree that, at one point or another, we’ve all been on the receiving end of the unspoken, projected energy/aura of another person; a joyful friend, an upset stranger, a disappointed significant other, an annoyed boss, an entitled child… we can all picture and even use our sense memories to call at least one of these people to mind. And I bet those memories do not (need to) include perfect auditory recall in order to be vivid. It wasn’t what they said or did. It was how they felt that let us know. 

Ask yourself if you’ve ever been the one sending these energy signals to others.

Spoiler: you have.

At some point in your life to now, you have walked into a room and been greeted by someone who immediately picks up on some unspoken aspect of your current mood. The best part? It may have been an emotion/thought that you weren’t even consciously aware of yet! And that is the part I want to briefly focus on today. Conscious engagement with our interpersonal physical energy and differentiating it from the energy we absorb from the world, and people, around us. 

Check in with yourself. As you perform an inventory like that, do you do with some degree of evaluative judgment, or just curious discovery? The default for most of us is the former, but the better, and more accurate version, is the latter. For the next few days, commit to checking in with yourself at least twice each day, taking your emotional temperature as it were. But do it like an interested observer. Be curious, not evaluative. The goal is just to notice your internal energy at two different times per day, and then to be curious about if and how it might be, or have been, reflected in your physical interpersonal presence as perceived by others. 

Take it a step farther. Instead of attaching your emotional/interpersonal energy to your self-perception, depersonalize it. I’ll do myself as an example: I have spent most of today feeling impatient. I have been in a few meetings and conversations —both work-related and personal— where I wanted them to be over almost before they had begun. I am confident that those I with whom I was interacting picked up on that, even though I never said anything concrete about it.

Rather than owning it, however, I will simply note it and set it aside with this phrase: “There is impatience.” It is not me, and I am not it. I experienced it, and others, through my interaction with them, experienced it as well. But now, free of the burden of it, I can look forward and try my best to choose something different from this moment on. I’ll try wonder. My goal will be to first feel wonder at the actions and words of the people I interact with tomorrow. I’ll then try to project it from within, but also to connect with it in the world around me. It is still not mine. I can’t own or contain it. But there IS wonder, and I can participate, partake, and share. And the most genuine, impactful way I’ll do that will not be through my words, nor even my overt actions. It will be by way of a mind-body engagement with the wonder that there is.

I’ll leave you today with the voice of one of my intellectual heroes, Daniel Kahneman:

In this interview, he talks about how he thinks we —yes, all of us— misunderstood the nature and scope of the COVID-19 threat, as well as the risks we may run in misconceiving of the world as it is now, and as it will be hereafter. My biggest takeaway comes at around the 3:20 mark and lasts until just shy of the 7:00 mark. Give it a listen, if you will, and think about individual instances of behavior versus extended patterns of behavior, in your own life, and in the world around you. I hope it will be a good segue to the upcoming entries on psychological boundaries.

Additional link related to today’s post:

https://wildtreewellness.com/energetic-boundaries/

Until next time. Be well. Stay safe.

Boundaries – Physical, Part 1: What’s “social distancing” got to do with it?

Well, this is turning out to take much longer than I had originally anticipated. I set boundaries for myself at the beginning, and created accountability by announcing what they were. I originally intended to finish my exploration of the Boundaries portion of my BASE model in about one month. Two and a half months later I am just past the halfway point. FAIL! (That’s the unkind voice in my head, and maybe in yours too… but we’ll get to that in due time).

Should I be upset about this? Does it mean I cannot practice very well what it is that I preach? Maybe… nah. This is yet another case where the process is much more important than the product. I hope you’ll agree before all is said and done.

At any rate, this time around we will consider a couple of the areas pertaining to Physical Boundaries. As the post title and headlining GIF imply, physical boundaries are, in some way, similar to other foundational (but often overlooked) things in our lives. Like running water and reliable access to electricity, neither seem to make much of a difference in our lives until they throw us a curve ball; at which point they come to matter more than almost anything!

Since Physical Boundaries are so foundational to successful interactions (look at the GIF at the top again if you’ve already begun to doubt), let’s unpack them according to the first two Boundary aspects under the BASE model: Temporal and Kinetic.

Temporal Physical Boundaries really boil down to the question of how you spend your physical time. So much of our daily physical life is dictated by rhythms and routines that are, at least somewhat, beyond our direct control. We suspend our sleep time and get up in the morning most often because it is necessary to do so in order to be somewhere (work, our child’s/children’s school, an appointment of some sort) by a certain time. We eat at intervals that are as much dictated by imposed societal structures as by our bodies themselves. We do social self-care (e.g. the energy replenishing activities with other or within ourselves) in the spaces between because it is considered “optional” or, worse yet, something superfluous. And then, at day’s end, we return to sleep either because our exhausted bodies and minds force us to, or because of some other external factor, like a spouse or partner whose preferred sleep schedule somehow becomes our own, or one of our many screens that lulls us into a state of semi-conscious surrender.

Whatever the specific circumstances around your personal routines and their attendant physical implications, what I am getting at here is that all too often the interactions between our bodies and the passing of time lacks intentionality and/or is largely reactive. We owe it to ourselves to push back against that default state.

So, do you have a wake-up time that is in your personal interests, and not in the name of your job or some other external obligation? What about your bedtime? Sleep is wonderful and necessary, but it does not need to be something that we just passively try to “do,” or that, worse yet, just happens to us. It really can become an activity that we engage in with intention and deliberation. In fact, it has lately become something of a trending topic. So, naturally, there are people making money off of it! Here are a couple of examples:

Dr. Michael Breus, “The Sleep Doctor”

Hal Elrod (author of “The Miracle Morning”)

My intention here is not to hawk either one of these gentlemen’s products on their behalf. They both do offer sufficient free content, and Elrod’s book is hardly a big investment, for you to begin to educate yourself at very little to no monetary cost. That’s my jam. What you do from there is completely up to you.

What about your eating? Does it feel like something that has meaningful boundaries around it, or is it perhaps more like this (disclaimer – If Louis CK is triggering or otherwise upsetting or unacceptable to you, please skip the video):

If this describes your temporal physical boundaries for food, umm… maybe that’s bad?

While I doubt many of us in are the throes of the kind of chaotic eating habits described in the video, I am also willing to wager that we do not all enact intentional boundaries on our food consumption.

Do you have a daily eating schedule or plan? Not just a routine, a plan. Do you think you could follow one? If you have never given it too much thought, but if you also have felt at times that your relationship to food and food consumption is not where you’d like it to be, there are many options to consider that aren’t keto, paleo, or some other highly restrictive “diet.”

For instance, have you given serious thought to simply implementing some temporal boundaries around when you eat and when you don’t? You’ve probably heard of intermittent fasting, but maybe you immediately rejected it because you thought it might just be another extreme, or passing fad. I’m not here to advocate for it one way or another. All I will say is that having a temporal physical boundary for your food consumption could be an effective way to jumpstart a change for you, especially if you are unsatisfied with how you are currently handling this aspect of your physical life.

Have a look at some options and decide for yourself whether you want to learn more or not: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322293#seven-ways-to-do-intermittent-fasting

And what about social self-care? How much time do you set aside for it? How much of it is driven by external factors, like work or school norms and routines, or by plain old inertia? One of the best ways to start to do more deliberate social self-care from a Temporal Physical Boundaries standpoint is to understand where you most naturally fall on the introversion<->extraversion continuum, and then examine whether how you allocate and spend your time matches up well with that or not. Yes, if you think of your “free” time as similar to any other highly finite resource, like money, then you are more likely to budget and “expend” it wisely and deliberately.

Kinetic Physical Boundaries, or the physical/movement activities in which we do and do not engage. In the case of Physical Boundaries, however, the Kinetic aspect also refers to HOW we engage in certain kinds of activities. Let’s look at just two: social greetings and leave-takings, and then body care.

Remember the hug/handshake fail GIF from the beginning? I have found this to be a great dividing line among people who are otherwise similarly sociable. Some of us are huggers, and some of us are handshakers. Some of us, thankfully an apparently much smaller number, are neither of those two, and prefer to avoid direct physical contact altogether. I call these folks head-nodders. You know, the people who greet you from up close or from afar with just a quick upward or downward nod of their heads. It’s also a particularly United-Statesian move, and one that has thrown many of my international friends and acquaintances for something of a loop. But I digress.

As the caption on the introductory GIF asks, if you are more of a handshaker than a hugger, do you literally use your body to enforce it, putting your hand out at arm’s length before those dreaded huggers can get in too close? Let me be clear, I ask because I am a notorious non-hugger and I am curious how others in my category go about their business. I ask because I have managed to avoid unsolicited hugs for most of my life just through the power of my gaze, facial expression, and general demeanor. I have actually stood next to my partner at social gatherings while people come up to hug her vigorously and then, with barely a glance at me, proceed to step back and extend their hands in order to shake mine. In extreme cases I have had people reach out to start to hug me and then, without a word or overt action on my part, pull back for a more “socially distant” handshake.

So, what does “social distancing” have to do with it? In recent days and weeks, we’ve all had to force ourselves to think differently about our physical proximity to, and degree of interaction with, our fellow humans. Has it been comfortable for you? Has it come somewhat naturally? No answer is “better” than another, but it may give you some concrete insight into your unconscious tendencies and preferences around Kinetic (and Interpersonal, to an extent, but we’ll get to that in a different post) Physical Boundaries.

I’ll just close this segment by saying that, wherever you may default to naturally on the hugger<->handshaker<->head-nodder continuum, you are by no means stuck there. Several months back, a trusted advisor of mine and I were talking about my tendency to enforce physical distance-keeping with just my demeanor. We kept going back and forth about the hows and whys of it all, until she finally said, “Why don’t you just put more energy into have a more open, welcoming way about you? Why not just try it and see what happens?!” Well, she was right. I spent the next weeks and months making more eye contact with strangers, co-workers, friends, and family. Not only has it made people more likely to greet me warmly, even just in passing. More smiles, more friendly hellos, and yes, more hugs. Heck, I’ve even started initiating some hugs with people I would otherwise have never hugged before. We can be more conscious and deliberate about our social distancing, even when there is nothing so urgent as a pandemic pushing us to do so. And we can do it not just to avoid illness, but also to pursue wellness. I hope you’ll keep that in mind…

Lastly, what about body care? Do you have an exercise routine? What about simple stretching, massage, or meditation? Have you ever considered chiropractic or acupuncture? Many of these things are costly, no doubt, and all too often are not (fully) covered by insurance plans. The only counter I would offer to those facts is this: the bill always comes due, either way. If you are not building body care activities into your life in a structured, sustainable way, you are most likely just kicking the physical health can down the road.

If you do not yet have a body care plan and routine, I urge you to start making one. Even if it is just implementing a regular 10+-minute walk into your day, five or more days each week. If you only go to see a physician (of any stripe) when there is something acutely troubling you, I would offer the alternative view that ongoing maintenance is frequently superior to sporadic, urgent troubleshooting. If you are already a regular exerciser, do you do enough to give your body opportunities to rest and recover? And, when you do exercise, do you push yourself productively, but not destructively, via varied workout routines with a range of emphases?

These are challenging kinds of equilibria to pursue, much more to achieve. A former fitness instructor of mine used to frequently urge those of us who took his exercise classes to “find that edge” in whatever we were doing. So, whether we were performing the most challenging version of a particular movement, like a burpee or a pull-up, or a modified version designed to help us gradually improve our strength and flexibility, he was coaching us to find the border between comfort and growth, because that is the space where the most productive investment of physical energy is made.

As leaders, we should always be ready to engage in these kinds of considerations about how, when, and where to invest resources. That is the very nature of most Boundaries, and certainly of physical ones. When conceived of correctly, they are not meant to simply hold us back; when conceived of correctly, they are an excellent tool for helping us grow.